george ecktonGeorge Eckton, a Labour member from Shettleston interested in domestic violence elimination and promoting equality, looks at the latest Equality Budget Statement from the Scottish Government, and finds it lacking.

 

Given the recent and ongoing debate regarding the Scottish Budget for 2016-17, I decided to have another read through the Equality Budget Statement (EBS). I know, I’m sad, but I wanted to see how it addressed the issue of equality, and particularly the inequalities caused by an austere public expenditure environment.

Four or five years ago, the current Scottish Government wanted reassurance that its spending advanced equality for all in Scotland. So they started to develop the EBS process as a systematic approach to assessing their budget decisions on equality groups. It was intended to work in a participatory way, which allows these groups the opportunity to feed in their experiences. This is a laudable, non-tick-box objective, meant to target most effectively, avoid or mitigate negative impacts on those groups. The process was to be overseen by an expert advisory group.

That aim of a systematic approach surely gets harder to achieve in an austere economic climate.

I won’t get into the political debate of whether 1p is progressive or not; it’s reasonably progressive in my view. But it would have been interesting to see that potential anti-austerity measure – i.e. a tax increase – given some analysis in the equality statement published pre-Christmas. In that way that the impact of changes in spending on protected and/or socio-economic characteristics (for example age in this #kidsnotcuts instance) could have been assessed against a range of possible spending and resourcing scenarios.

The first thing to notice is that the EBS document says it’s a “statement”. The clue is in the title, I suppose, and that’s what it is: a statement of the government’s achievements and spending around the groups with protected characteristics and socio-economic disadvantage mentioned in the Equality Act. It’s a nice, clear statement of the government’s Greatest Hits. Fair play, there has been some very good stuff this year and in previous years.

But the document also sometimes refers to the work undertaken as “analysis”. It’s difficult to see why. I would have hoped that analysis of the budget of any government in future could get into a range of possible scenarios with details of why such an approach, e.g. raise taxes, wasn’t taken on the basis of equality. If you assume an efficiency angle then this contraction of spending argument can only surely be justified for a certain numbers of years before public authorities start to fail to have “due regard”, as the lawyers say – or apply common sense and test all alternatives, in non legal speak – and start to struggle to achieve their statutory equality duties because money is too tight to mention?

So in this challenging financial climate, maybe we need EBS processes to move beyond not just a statement, or even examination, into an “assessment” of the budget. A Strategic Equality Budget Assessment?

What I’m proposing is not as detailed as a an equality impact assessment (EqIA), which is a process of checking that a public policy, project or scheme does not discriminate against disadvantaged or vulnerable persons. The Equality Act, the last piece of legislation from the last UK Labour government, defines the groups of persons and the characteristics that this legislation seeks to protect from discrimination. Sadly EqIAs seem to have followed a similar path to other statutory assessments, in that they are seen and undertaken sometimes as a “tick-box” exercise. Maybe even sometimes the relevant organisation forgets to even tick that box or hopes others forgot that they are meant to remember!

If we are serious about mainstreaming equality and reducing inequality, we need to be moving to a position where the general legal equality duties are mainstreamed into the day-to-day decision-making process of any organisation, central government included, enabling a richer narrative of the aspects of the decision-making to be evidenced. The role of central government cannot simply be to set its budget and delegate the tough choices to others downstream. It’s worth noting that various legal principles relating to Equality Act case law suggest that the duty isn’t delegable.

I’m suggesting an equality strategic assessment which is not just a statement of the outcome or expenditure, or a rerun of the greatest hits, but a narrative of comparison about the choices made and the rationale behind them, with clear evidence as to why those strategic decisions were made. Surely this would help further engage the public in a debate about how we address the inequalities within Scotland which were outlined within the recent EHRC report and the political spending decisions required in future years?

If, in the future, we are getting into even tougher choices about national budgets which will fund local services, ultimately the actions of the central grant funding central government could have a material impact on the ability of public bodies to advance equality and avoid discrimination in the provision of local services. Surely we need to move past a comprehensive list of projects, policies and practices into a system which appraises a range of scenarios and the downstream implications of these choices within a national budget? This could protect other public bodies from challenge that, for example, they could have locally raised council tax to pay for local services or made different choices to avoid discrimination and effective promotion of inequality.

Hopefully with the advent of a fully introduced Equality Act socio-economic duty in Scotland, which is due to be devolved by the Scotland Act, we can see the equality budgeting environment more clearly defined and a landscape where government policies such as the Council Tax freeze are clearly evidenced and assessed at a national policy level. A place where taxation policy in Scotland is refreshed and the socio-economic duty introduced as a measure which improves local democracy and budgeting in Scotland. Budgetary decisions closer to communities and the consideration all financial options, not just a choice from a set menu.

It’s also important to consider who gets to make the decisions moving forward: central government and an expert advisory group? Or local democratic elected politicians and local communities through a participatory budgeting approach? Certainly I’d prefer more of the latter as, it would seem, did the recent commission on strengthening local democracy.

In the future, rather than it being a centrally-imposed duty to do things in a certain universal way in Scotland, the equity and fairness of decisions on funding services emerging from national policy could be left to those public sector service providers closest to the communities and individuals covered by the Equality Act.

I fear that this Utopian vision is unlikely to become reality. But a good first step would be an Equality Budget Statement which isn’t primarily a statement of expenditure or projects, which is how it came across to me upon re-reading it. I would hope it could transform into a comprehensive narrative around a continuous conscious approach to assessing the likely impacts of the Scottish budget downstream for those service providers to which decisions are delegated.

For me, strategic equality statements need to be credible and persuasive, and this is achieved more by quality of evidential analysis than a repetition of greatest hits. Thankfully the EBS says it is viewed as a work in progress. I hope it becomes a classical work of policy popular art in future.